Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ San Francisco food bank has become a primary food source for many during the pandemic. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ San Francisco food bank has become a primary food source for many during the pandemic. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Jewish food banks see tenfold growth in demand during pandemic

Before the coronavirus, clients of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services food banks would come in once or twice a month. It was usually to help cushion their pantry with boxes of pasta, canned soups or a jar of Skippy peanut butter.

But those days are over.

Since the pandemic started, JFCS has seen enormous growth in the use of its food banks in San Francisco, San Rafael, San Mateo and Palo Alto. Many clients are now relying on them as their primary food source, as the coronavirus has created a potentially dangerous environment for seniors and left a path of economic destruction for out-of-work families.

The increase in demand for food is “tenfold,” JFCS associate executive director Nancy Masters said. “It’s in the thousands, the amount of people getting touched by this.”

To adjust to the new reality, JFCS has brought on hundreds of volunteers, Masters said, who are following social distancing protocols and delivering groceries so clients don’t have to come to the food banks in person. In San Francisco, 100 households are getting food deliveries each week, a majority of them new clients.

Masters said most of those clients are adults over 65, some with underlying health issues, who have been advised by officials to stay at home as much as possible since the coronavirus is much more deadly for that population.

One longtime JFCS client, who recently was furloughed from his retail job and is facing a difficult financial situation on top of mobility and health issues, said the food bank deliveries are a “blessing.”

The San Francisco resident, who is in his 70s and requested anonymity for privacy reasons, said he had tried to go to a local supermarket during senior hours — a service some stores are now offering so vulnerable populations can shop with fewer customers around them — but found he didn’t have the stamina or energy to do it again.

“It took me forever,” he said. “I got back home, I was exhausted. I was frightened.”

He now gets groceries delivered by JFCS once a week. “Thank God to organizations that are so considerate,” he said.

JFCS also provides food to seniors through other programs it runs, including Meals on Wheels and the L’Chaim Adult Day Health Center, both of which have seen increased demand, according to Traci Dobronravova, who heads the agency’s Seniors At Home program.

While older adults have been one of the major drivers of the food banks’ increased usage, that is shifting, said Dobronravova.

JFCS Seniors At Home director Traci Dobronravova with bagfuls of food ready for delivery. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
JFCS Seniors At Home director Traci Dobronravova with bagfuls of food ready for delivery. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

An eye-popping 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last seven weeks, and more and more, Dobronravova said, families who have lost their income streams are turning to the food banks.

“It’s starting to grow now,” she said. Dobronravova anticipates that even if the Bay Area shelter-in-place order ends on May 31, the economic devastation of the pandemic will continue, as will the demand for food banks. She also thinks that seniors will be hesitant about leaving their homes for the foreseeable future.

JFCS’ San Francisco pantry on Post Street is a 12-by-10-foot room stacked with canned goods, cereals, fruit and toiletries. A volunteer packs brown bags of items — one person in the room at a time, per health requirements — and then brings them to a nearby conference room where they await delivery. The S.F. pantry is being moved to a room about twice the size to allow two volunteers to work together.

The food bank can be accessed by anyone in the community after an initial intake process, Dobronravova said.

Other Jewish organizations are also stepping up to meet the surge in demand for food.

IsraAid, an Israeli humanitarian organization that works around the world and has offices in the Bay Area, has a small team of volunteers delivering food. The group has linked up with the Silicon Valley-based food bank Second Harvest and the nonprofit Team Rubicon. Sarith Honigstein, senior director of operations for IsraAid’s U.S. branch, said that it is planning on scaling up efforts.

Another local Jewish organization turned a tough situation into an act of giving.

When the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto was forced to close its café at the end of March, the organization decided to donate its leftover food worth $15,000 to Project WeHOPE, a nearby homeless shelter and food bank, which received frozen hamburger meat and chicken breasts, along with some Jewish items like matzah ball mix.

“It was a no-brainer,” said community engagement director Luba Palant, who worked on the project with Robert Stayte, who oversees the café.

“[WeHOPE] had the kitchen to use this food. We had the opportunity.”

Click here to donate to the JFCS food banks.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.